{ women in workplace }

  • What's different between female STEM workers and those in other professions?

    Many studies of women in STEM use men as a referent group to women: how do women compare to men in CS with regard to retention, attitudes, discrimination, etc? While there’s certainly benefit to using men as a referent group (and it’s far, far better than no referent group at all), there’s a threat to validity that we tend to overlook when studying women in CS: how much of what we see is an artifact of CS culture versus that of our wider society? **
    Triangulation using different referent groups is a good way to get around this issue. I’ve talked before about differences between women in CS vs. other STEM fields, differences between women in CS between different cultures, and differences over time/generations. But in every one of these posts, I’ve really only looked at scientists.

    Glass et al’s “What’s So Special about STEM? A Comparison of Women’s Retention in STEM and Professional Occupations“ addresses another angle: what’s different for women in STEM vs. women in other professional occupations? After all, women are more likely than men to leave other professional occupations such as business, medicine and law [1]. And in all these fields, substantial problems remain at the top: women may make up a substantial proportion of workers, but a tiny minority of those running the show.

    The Glass et al Paper

    To make the comparison of STEM women and non-STEM women, the Glass et al paper uses longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979. The longitudinal approach is a strength of the paper. A weakness, however, is that the women participating are a single generational cohort who entered the workforce in the late 80s/90s: “second generation” per my previous post.

    Overall, Glass et al found that women in STEM jobs had more in common with women in non-STEM professional jobs – and that “few differences in job characteristics emerge” overall. This is a rather important finding – it means that if we work carefully, we can often generalize findings about women in the general workforce to women in the STEM workforce.

    I say “carefully” since there were a few differences that they found. Here’s what’s unique to STEM women:

    1. Women who are married to fellow STEM workers are nearly 100% more likely to stay in their STEM jobs than women married to non-STEM workers.2. A higher education does not increase a STEM woman’s likelihood of staying in a STEM career. In other occupations, such as medicine or law, the more advanced degrees a woman has, the more likely she’ll stay in the field. Glass et al attribute to this to the type of work done by those with MSc/PhDs: the more education you need to do the job, the more likely it’ll be isolating and in a “noxious” work environment for women.
    2. Unlike non-STEM women who leave their jobs to stay at home, when STEM women leave their jobs, they overwhelmingly do so to fill non-STEM jobs, rather than to stay at home permanently. Switching to management explains almost a quarter of these job departures.Those three differences aside, everything they looked at turned out to be the same for both STEM women and non-STEM women.

    Similarities between female STEM and non-STEM workers

    For both women in STEM jobs and women in professional non-STEM jobs, the following things are positively correlated with the retention of women in the workplace: Higher pay, job commitment, higher reported job satisfaction, longer time working in that career, and the presence of parental leave.

    Sociologists have documented the “Work-Family Narrative“ – the cultural narrative that women leave (or struggle with) their jobs because they can’t balance work and family. They’ve similarly documented that the majority of workplace interventions to improve the status of women focus on this narrative.

    Yet, what Glass et al found is that primary propellant of women out of the workforce – both STEM and non-STEM – is not childcare. Nor is it lack of confidence or lack of training – or lack of “leaning in”.

    The primary propellants are dissatisfaction with pay and promotion prospects. There’s a ton of sociology papers out there finding similar results. Childcare might be the catalyst for acting on that dissatisfaction, but it’s not the underlying cause.

    This dissatisfaction is linked to a number of sources of inequality, such as being left out of the “boys networks”, subconscious biases against women, open prejudice about the competence of women, and sexual harassment. Correspondence studies of women in STEM and other professional domains have consistently found that women are less likely to be thought worth of a promotion as an equally qualified man, less worthy of a higher salary, and less likable overall. And there’s evidence that men in our society are promoted based on potential – while women are promoted based on past accomplishments. This sort of unintentional, de facto discrimination is not unique to STEM.

    The Work-Family Narrative as a Social Defense

    The paper I linked to about the “Work-Family Narrative” – by Padravic and Ely – presents a rather compelling argument that the reason that people focus on this narrative is because it is an unconscious social defense. The Work-Family Narrative gives a way of thinking about the problems facing women in the professional workplace that doesn’t involve coming to terms with discrimination and systematic problems in the workforce.

    Padravic and Ely also argue that this narrative similarly allows people to keep their cultural stereotypes in tact: women are the caregivers, men are the workers – and so women have a hard time in the workforce because they must balance their position as caregiver. I’ve noted before that our brains are wired to keep cultural stereotypes in tact.

    Discrimination is an ugly thing to talk about. I don’t blame people for shying away from it. But it needs to be tackled to change the numbers of women in the workforce – whether it be STEM or other fields. And it’s important to compare STEM to the rest of society – we need to know what’s a STEM problem and what’s even more systematic.

  • Why Are There More Women in CS in Other Cultures?

    The rates of female participation in CS – and STEM in general – vary wildly from culture to culture. In the US, women currently make up about 18% of undergraduate CS students [1], but over in Qatar, women make up about 70% of CS undergrads [2].

    Women in STEM are better represented in countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Portugal, and the Philippines. In these countries, women make up approximately 50% of STEM undergrads [3]. Indeed, well-developed countries like Canada, the US, and the UK have some of the lowest levels of female participation in STEM.

    So, what cultural factors lead to fewer or more women in STEM? Per the work of Barinaga, there are five factors [3]:

    1. Recently developed science capabilities, resulting in an unentrenched scientific community
    2. Perception of science as a low status career
    3. Class issues that overshadow gender issues
    4. Compulsory math and science education in secondary school
    5. Large social support for raising families

    New to Science

    While it’s a bit surprising that Portugal and Mexico have better levels of female participation in science despite these countries not having well established scientific scenes, the evidence is actually that they have these better levels because of the newness of their scientific communities [3]. In countries like the US and the UK, the scientific communties have entrenched cultures. So called “old boys networks” were built up before women were allowed into the labour market; science has been firmly established as a masculine occupation. Portugal, for instance, begin its scientific and technological establishments in the 20th century, when society was more open to female participation.

    It should be noted, however, that while countries like Portugal may have large numbers of women in science, few are making it to the top. Beatriz Ruivo, who studies female participation in Portugese science, has found that the
    glass ceiling there is partly due to the lack of a strong women’s movement in Portugal [3]. We see an interesting parallel in the history of computer science. In the early days of computer programming (30s-60s), most programmers and coders were women [4]. It was later when stereotypes of programmers being nerds developed – and IT companies began specifically hiring those who were like the nerds in order to make up for a labour shortage in the late 60s – that programming became highly masuclinized.

    Science As a Low-Status Occupation

    It is fairly established in the sociology literature that, across cultures, the lower the status and pay an occupation, the more likely it is that women will be found there [3]. And not only are women more socially encouraged to stay in low-status occupations, but some occupations are reinforced as having low status due to the large numbers of women – forming “occupational ghettos”.

    This was certainly the case in the early history of computer programming. Women were traditionally “computers” – those that did the hand computations, whereas men actually did the science [5]. When computers entered the mix,
    it was the men who were to decide what the computers should calculate, and women were left as the low status “coders” to carry out the low-level work [4].

    For countries with recently developed science communities, basic science is not highly connected to the production of goods and services. Science is hence seen only as an intellectual, cultural pursuit – not unlike how the humanities are regarded in the US and Canada. The humanities in North America are frequently (and unfortunately) derided as being “useless” – and have largely equal levels of women and men in modern day.

    In computer science, it has been noted that male students often select careers in CS for the money. As computer science has become known as a lucrative field, more men have been specifically drawn to the field – and driving out their female colleagues.

    A Matter of Privilege

    In India, southern Europe, and Latin America, the social hierarchy puts high class women above low class men [3]. In these countries, education is often limited to the upper classes, resulting in a very different environment in academia than in the general population.

    In North America, women from affluent communities, with parents in IT, were more likely to go into computer science themselves [6]. In short, the more privilege you have, the more likely you are to study CS – for instance, a White woman from a rich family and urban neighbourhood is more likely to have a job in STEM than than an Aboriginal man from a poor, rural family.

    For computer science, the digital divide plays in to class issues [6]. The low classes not only are less likely to receive higher education, but also less likely to be connected to modern computing. Without a connection to computers, one would expect fewer of them to study computer science.

    Compulsory Schooling – And Mindset

    Former Soviet countries have higher rates of female participation in science, and Barinaga attributes this partly to the requirement that all secondary school students take multiple science courses and mathematics [3]. As a result, girls “can’t ‘chicken out’” of science and don’t close doors on themselves before they reach university’’. The policy of teaching all science subjects, in particular, is beneficial – when students can choose one science out of a list (as is the case in many Canadian provinces), female participation in physics is reduced.

    The American approach of science being optional – and hence avoided by all but the gifted students – leads to a mentality to that you either have talent in science, or you don’t [3]. This fixed mindset approach to science has been consistently found detrimental both to individual success in science, as well as for minorities. In countries like Italy, where all sciences are mandatory, the communal mindset about science is a growth mindset: anybody can do it.

    Support For Families

    Forty percent of women who leave the workforce cite their husbands – and specifically, their husbands’ inability to pull their weight with housework and childcare – as their reason for leaving [8]. The United States was described by Barinaga’s international participants as “just a horrible place to try to raise a family and have a career’’. Without state-mandated parental leave, allowances for dads to stay home to look after children, and daycare, it is difficult for many women to manage both career and family.

    Contributing to the problem is the Protestant work ethic for men, leading men to focus only on work and leave everything else to their wives. In northern Europe, Canada, and the US, fathers spend less time looking after their families [3]. Female science participation is higher in countries where childcare is a shared responsibility: not just between father and mother, but also with the extended family, and society at large.

    This shared responsibility needs to be present in the workplace too; as one of Barinaga’s participants described: “if I missed a half-day of work [in the United States because] my kid had a temperature of 104, I was lectured on how this let down the [department]. In Israel there is 3 months paid maternity leave, day-care centers on every block, and if you don’t take off from work for your kid’s birthday party the department chairman will lecture you on how important these things are to kids and how he never missed one while his kids were little (Emphasis added).

    A Final Note

    Culture is a complex issue. None of the issues listed here can be a panacea for North American STEM. For example, even if we made CS obligatory in high school, it’s unlikely to have an effect for many racial minorities (Black/Hispanic Americans, Aboriginal Canadians, New Zealand Maori, etc), as these groups have low rates of high school completion [7]. By identifying these cross-cultural factors that promote women in STEM, we can better identify what factors (plural!) need addressing here in North America.

    [1] NCWIT By the Numbers. http://www.ncwit.org/resources/numbers
    [2] Guzdial. Women in CS in Qatar: It’s Complicated. http://computinged.wordpress.com/2010/05/03/women-in-cs-in-qatar-its-complicated/
    [3] Barinaga. “Surprises Across the Gender Divide”. Science 263, number 5152 (1994): 1486.
    [4] Ensmenger. “The Computer Boys Take Over”.
    [5] Rossiter. “Women scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940”, volume 1.
    [6] Ashcraft, Eger and Friend. “Girls in IT: The Facts”. http://www.ncwit.org/resources/girls-it-facts
    [7] Adams, Hazzan, Loftsson, and Young. “International Perspective of Women and Computer Science”. http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=611892.611897
    [8] Stone. “Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home”. University of California Press, 2007.